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Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Global Arms Trade Treaty A step in which direction?

[Return to the related issued on Nonviolence News]

Is the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), agreed at the United Nations at the beginning of April [see lead item in news section of this issue], a monumental new departure in attempts to curb global violence or a legitimisation of a nefarious trade which will make little difference? As with many such issues, simple answers can be simplistic – and not so simple answers can also be simplistic.

First of all, some facts about the Treaty and arms sales. UN members voted by 154 votes to 3, with 23 abstentions (including major arms sellers Russia and China); the 3 who opposed the Treaty were Syria, Iran and North Korea. The Treaty covers ‘conventional’ weapons such as tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery systems, war planes and helicopters, warships, missiles and launchers, as well as light weapons. The Treaty forbids countries that ratify it from arms exports that violate arms embargoes or if they promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes or if they will be used in attacks on civilians, schools and hospitals. There is no enforcement mechanism though there will a forum of states who have ratified the Treaty to monitor it and take things forward.

The Treaty becomes operational when 50 countries have ratified it. The two, by far largest, arms exporters are the USA and Russia, followed some way down the field by China, Ukraine, Germany, France, UK, Italy, Netherlands and Spain, in that order of value of sales; total arms sales are something like $70 billion a year (which is only a fraction of total military spending at $1738 billion in 2011). The Treaty does not cover arms sales to non-state bodies, a reason why Syria voted against the Treaty (though states are required to prevent weapons reaching the black market). WILPF have pointed out that while gender-based violence is included as a criterion, it is not as strong and detailed as it could be.

There will be ratification troubles ahead. In the USA, Republicans and domestic gun lobbyists who persist in seeing the Treaty as an assault on their constitutionally-stated right to hold arms as citizens (despite a clause referring to the international nature of the Treaty), or an undue interference with the state’s right to do whatever it wants, will make ratification difficult. Major manufacturers like China and Russia are unlikely to sign in the short term, and apart from anything else, signing for Russia would make supplying the Syrian regime outside of acceptable criteria. And despite rhetoric from someone like British Prime Minister David Cameron in support of the Treaty, he obviously has no problems with sales to reactionary Gulf or other states – and Tony Blair’s government sold weapons to both India and Pakistan when they were threatening each other with nuclear war, and this was after Blair’s promise of an ‘ethical’ foreign policy. There can also be increasing militarisation in society with decreasing expenditure on the military, as with the current example of Britain.

One problem with the arms trade is that it is, in one way or another, ‘dead’ money for the purchaser. Even if it is never used militarily, arms sales by their nature remove money from the purchaser which could be used for the purposes of human development – economic development, education, or health services. Even for producer countries, subsidies to arms producers are poor value in terms of job creation (investment in health or education produces more jobs), and are certainly not doing anything productive.

The arms trade will continue and part of the problem is that, in the global world of shifting regimes, alliances and realities, today’s ‘friendly’ regime may be tomorrow’s ‘deadly’ enemy. So an arms export which does not stand outside UN arms trade criteria today can be arming a regime or country to the teeth which would not fit the criteria for arms exports tomorrow. Apart from that, it is still possible to be a very repressive regime and yet tick the boxes; in a few years’ time, perhaps not so many of those boxes might be ticked but when countries have weapons most will have no compunction about using them internally if need be.

Perhaps our own responses to the Treaty depend on a) our theory of change, and b) our perception of military force. If we have an incremental view of change, we may feel this Treaty is a step in the right direction, that even though it has loopholes and lack of enforcement capability, the fact that it exists can be used to name, shame and force countries to fulfil their obligations in this matter. In this thinking, something is better than nothing and some resistance from major arms exporters would indicate that it is on the right track. There are now criteria which exist by which the arms trade can be judged. It is possible to be a radical incrementalist as well as a liberal one.

If we perceive of military force in defence of a state as a fundamental right, and basically good, we are likely to have a limited critique of the arms trade. In this argument, people need armaments to defend themselves – the problem is when arms are used inappropriately to attack others, enforce brutal control, and deny democracy and human rights. However in this argument arms are necessary for the defence of a state and its territory and therefore the arms trade can be ‘a good thing’.

However, just because we might – and we do – come at the matter from a nonviolent perspective does not mean we should necessarily see such a treaty as a dangerous defence of an indefensible trade. INNATE would certainly like to see an end to the arms trade, full stop. But we are not so naive to think that the world will become nonviolent overnight. We are committed to developing the power of nonviolent action at all levels. But change takes place in different ways and with impetus from different directions. If this Arms Trade Treaty prevents some armaments reaching some despotic and tyrannical regimes, and thus enables the possibility of positive political and social change, then it will be a small but important step. We don’t know as yet the extent to which arms manufacturing countries will go to legitimise themselves though reporting obligations will hopefully make it more difficult for them; there may be opportunities which the treaty provides to use emerging information to push for further change.

The Arms Trade Treaty is ‘historic’ in getting some agreement from most states on the issue, and in the power of civil society organisations, allied with friendly states, in getting it through. One of the precepts of successful social and political organisation is to realise when something has been achieved and celebrate it. This Treaty is an achievement. Whether the provisions of the Treaty are so ‘historic’ is not only open to debate and interpretation but to the effect of work which will yet be done by people on all sides – arms companies and producer countries, purchasing countries, and activists for change. So now is not the end of the matter but the beginning of a new process and the continuation of the old struggle for human liberation. To see this Treaty as an end point would certainly be to legitimise the arms trade.

- - - - - -

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Magical Thinking & the Environment

Each generation internalises the views, values, and ways of solving problems of the generation it is born into. Although this allows the lessons of successive generations to be passed to the next it makes radical change in views, values and how society is organised exceedingly difficult.

A cardinal view of 21st century society, one that politicians, pundits and the public accept without question is that economic growth can continue indefinitely and that global civilization can be sustained by renewable forms of energy.

This view is as deeply ingrained as the belief, held by an estimated eighty percent of the human population, is that homo sapiens is the only species, of the millions that have existed, whose members don’t die, by virtue of having an immortal soul. Although we take pride in our technological inventiveness, our powers of reason and our emotional imagination, the outlook of most people in regard to issues affecting our wellbeing and that of the biosphere is determined by such magical thinking as the idea of infinite economic growth.

Magical thinkers believe there is a crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. A local example is the belief of MP MLA Sammy Wilson that fracking for gas in County Fermanagh will “provide the energy security we badly need.” (Belfast Telegraph, 22 March 2013)

National economic policy, that is fixated on growth, does not consider the immediate and long-term negative effect economic growth has on the quality of peoples’ lives through the destruction of landscape, the loss of biodiversity, the pollution of water, the loss of sustainable means of livelihood such as farming and tourism over which locals have a large measure of control, as well as the stress and ill-health caused by the urbanization of the countryside with the possible loss of historic and sacred sites. Magical economic thinking, or neoliberalism, is the only economic system its plaudits claim can, in spite of periodic recessions, realise heaven on earth.

The wonder is that in spite of the transformation of the planet in the effort to achieve year by year economic growth heaven on earth has not been achieved. Rather, as the UN reports “the earth is in the midst of the mass extinction of life” with between 150 - 200 species becoming extinct every day. (The Guardian, 10.08.2010) Billions live in dire poverty and tens of millions of unemployed in the rich world can’t make ends meet. In Northern Ireland, for instance, 35% of households are in negative equity. (The Belfast Telegraph, 24.03.2013) The world faces social, environmental and political meltdown through the accelerating warming of the planet brought about by the quest for more stuff’, much of which ends up as pollution, such as the plastics trapped in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, (National Geographic) or placed in landfill sites.

Thankfully, culture is not static; views and values change in the course of time. Since the end of the Second World War there have been profound changes in social attitudes and behaviour in the rich technologically advanced countries. In the 1950s the idea that a woman’s place is in the home was accepted by most of society. Up until 1975 a woman in the UK could be sacked if she became pregnant. In the 1970s most people would not have been able to fathom the idea of gay marriage and would have considered the idea of female clergy ridiculous. Corporal punishment was the norm in Irish and UK schools until it was outlawed in the late 1980s. Up until 2007 smoking in public places in the UK was tolerated in spite of the known health risks and enormous discomfort to smokers and non-smokers alike. Today, cigarette advertising is banned in 77% of countries in the European region.

The important question of our time is will there be a paradigm shift towards global civilization living in an environmentally sustainable way before the biosphere ceases to function in the way it has done since the end of the last ice age 11,000 years ago? Given most governments’ fixation on economic growth and the building of infrastructure that locks countries into long-term reliance on fossil fuels this is unlikely.

Copyright INNATE 2021